Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 31, 2022 -- "The Double-Bank-Shot Theory"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $79.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 43
May 31, 2022

You’ve talked a lot about how batters have sold out for the long ball as their only defense against the warlocks on the mound. While I agree that the chicanery with the baseballs is beyond dumb, do you think there’s a possible long game here where batters have to revert more to line drives than fly balls? It would obviously be a 20-year or so cycle but is there any merit to coupling deader balls with the other changes you propose (move the mound back, etc.) to eventually get to a more aesthetically pleasing style of play? 

--Brandon Z.

Readers send me this question more than any other, whether it’s to my inbox or on Slack or in my Twitter feed. What I have dubbed the “double-bank-shot theory” is an incredibly popular one among baseball fans, as well as some writers and analysts.

By putting a baseball in play that flies less well, MLB has reduced the value of fly balls. In the first two months of 2019, batters hit .300 with a .954 slugging on fly balls, as classified by Baseball Reference. So far in 2022, batters are hitting .254 with a .767 slugging on fly balls. It’s not a classification problem -- the number of plate appearances in both data sets is nearly identical. There have been 500 fewer homers hit on fly balls in roughly the same number of plate appearances ending in a fly ball.

The double-bank-shot theory proposes that by making fly balls less valuable, MLB will dissuade hitters from hitting the ball up and far, and instead encourage them to hit in a more contact-oriented style that produces more balls in play and fewer strikeouts. The new ball has also reduced the value of line drives, but not by nearly as much: Over the same periods as discussed above, batting average on line drives is the same, although slugging has dropped by 60 points. To the extent the double-bank-shot theory has merit, it’s in these numbers. Line drives are much more valuable, relative to fly balls, than they were three years ago.

Unfortunately, that’s the only point in its favor. 

Let’s start from first principles. Batters have been trying to hit the ball hard and far since the game was called “town ball” and played for recreation, mostly by kids. The idea that hitters just discovered, maybe six years ago, the value of hitting the ball over everybody is silly. You can’t read three pages of baseball history without coming across the phrase “mighty wallop.” We’ve been celebrating power hitters since being one meant swinging a log at a ball of wet socks held together by wishes.

We have, of course, put numbers to the idea in recent years. Early statheads quantified the value of slugging. Later ones showed that the most valuable thing a player can do is pull a fly ball. Batters aren’t trying to maximize contact rate or batting average, they’re trying to maximize the number of runs their team scores. They do this by being judicious about when to swing and then trying to hit the ball hard and far when they do.

In today’s baseball, there is already a massive incentive for hitters to try something different. Data-driven defensive positioning -- your people call it “the shift” -- has a built-in reward for contact hitting and spray hitting. Most hitters today...this is why I don’t like calling it a “shift”...bat against a defense aligned to field batted balls to the pull side. Rangers prospect Josh Smith made his MLB debut last night, and in the lefty batter’s first career plate appearance, the Rays had shortstop Wander Franco positioned behind shortstop and second baseman Vidal Brujan playing short right field. Against Shohei Ohtani on Sunday, the Blue Jays played no infielders to the left of second base, with five of their seven defenders on the outfield grass.

Teams can do this because they know what the batters know: You score more runs hitting up. You score more runs hitting to the pull side. You score more runs hitting over the defense. The defense can concede one base, especially with the bases empty and at least one out, if it means the batter will forego the chance to hit the ball hard and far. They’re not trying to prevent hits, they’re trying to prevent runs. Batters have the opportunity, to varying degrees and projected success rates, to hit singles by changing their approach. They turn them down because in most cases, overall run production is lowered by doing so. 

Batters are not doing this in a vacuum, of course. One reason this approach is run-maximizing is that modern pitchers are throwing the nastiest pitches ever devised. It’s become a joke online, one I’ve made myself, to snark “just go the other way” when Pitching Ninja drops a clip of a Bugs Bunny breaking ball delivered by some anonymous 26-year-old who spent the winter sleeping on Kyle Boddy’s couch. These pitchers are asked to do less individually than any pitchers in baseball history, they almost never pitch tired, they are the primary beneficiaries of modern technology and analysis. There has been a scientific takeover of pitching that has no parallel on the other side of the ball.

As pitchers became harder to hit, batters doubled down on trying to make sure that the contact they made was the most valuable kind: up, pulled, and hard.

The Revolution

         FB%     Pull%     Hard%
2015   33.8%     39.1%     28.8%
2016   34.6%     39.7%     31.4%
2017   35.5%     39.8%     31.8%
2018   35.4%     40.3%     35.3%
2019   35.7%     40.7%     38.0%
2020   35.7%     41.0%     33.3%
2021   36.5%     40.0%     32.1%
2022   36.6%     40.5%     29.7%

(thanks, FanGraphs)

These calculations come from Sports Info Solutions, and you can see that the baseball has changed since 2019 in the decline in what they define as hard contact. Other studies have shown that batters are getting less value from their best-hit balls -- what StatCast calls “barrels” -- than they have in recent seasons. Batters are being punished for hitting the ball hard against the toughest pitchers ever.

Some fans will lament the failure of batters to evolve. The thing is, batters did evolve. People just don’t like the way they did. 

The double-bank-shot theory is wrong because it gets the order of events wrong. It ignores the main driver of recent changes in MLB, namely the evolution of pitchers and pitching. Instead, the theory burdens the hitters even further. Nothing at all has been done to rein in pitchers. The 13-pitcher limit, itself an ineffectual gesture, has been pushed back repeatedly under the guise of “health and safety.” Moving the mound back has been argued, tried, and seems to have been dismissed.

There are a lot of people betting that a pitch clock, almost certainly coming in 2023, will be what throttles back pitching. The idea is that forcing pitchers to work more quickly will lessen their ability to put maximum effort into each pitch. There’s been a very tight clock -- 14 seconds with the bases empty, 18 with runners on -- in place for about six weeks in the minor leagues. This is probably a topic for another day, but I am skeptical that this is a real short-term solution for MLB, for a set of reasons best summarized as “people actually care about MLB results.” Even at that, the clock hasn’t changed the statistics, other than time of game, in the leagues in which it’s been used. 

Deadening the baseball penalized hitters for adapting to modern pitching in a way that puts runs on the board, while making things even easier for a generation of pitchers-turned-witches. The only thing propping up offense, as strikeout rates rocketed from 17% to nearly 25%, was outcomes on batted balls. Making those balls less valuable for hitters showed that the decision-makers fundamentally didn’t understand what they were watching. It’s the pitchers, not the hitters.

The double-bank-shot theory fails because you can’t force hitters to hit in ways that produce fewer runs. The runs are in pulled fly balls, not in sprayed singles. You could, at one time, build an offense in different ways, back when pitchers could only strike out one in six, one in seven batters, when they would pitch tired, when they would face a batter four times a game, when the league hit .260 and the best teams might hit .285. Those days are over and until MLB takes action, they’re not coming back. You’d need to roll strikeout rates back to the mid-teens to make long-sequence offense viable again. The only path to that is moving the mound back or something truly radical like requiring four strikes for a strikeout.

MLB’s effort at behavior modification is misguided because in modern baseball, it’s not the hitters, it’s the pitchers. Until MLB gets serious about addressing the evolution of pitching -- until it shows it even recognizes the problem -- we’re nowhere.